As I think I’ve mentioned before, my wife Clara (who is in the process of becoming my ex-wife although we remain best of friends – a neat trick if you can pull it off and thus far we seem to be doing OK) grew up in Berlin both before and after the reunification of Germany.
She remembers partying on the rubble of the wall as a not-quite 14 year old, and like most Berliners of that vintage, saved a small chunk she still keeps to this day.
She also remembers being taught about the Second World War, and in particular the role played by the German nation – and the German people – in the origins and conduct of that war.
There is, and has been more or less ever since 1945, a tendency among British commentators (and comedians) to cast both serious and less than serious aspersions on the sincerity with which post-war Germany regrets and seeks to atone for the Nazi era, and a general sneering implication that there would be altogether less handwringing going on if the Germans had won.
While the second of these points is imponderable (although as I noted a few months ago, there’s a whole genre of counter-historical fiction devoted to pondering it), it really is time to put that first question to bed once and for all. The mortification felt by the German people with regard to the Nazi regime – and their resolve never to plumb such depths again – is absolutely genuine.
Clara told me of how German schoolchildren are taught, in unflinching terms, of Hitler’s rise to power and of the atrocities committed in his name and to his orders. High school pupils are taken on field trips to carefully preserved concentration camps, much as British kids are dragged around medieval castles and Roman remains. They’re shown the piles of spectacles, of extracted gold fillings, the shower huts, the ovens … and they’re informed gravely that ‘this was us, our people, that did this’. Not that there’s anything inherently evil about the German race, but that it’s possible for even the most advanced and civilised culture to be, to use a glib but entirely appropriate metaphor, seduced by the Dark Side. To believe the enticing lie that glory and mastery was theirs by birthright, and there to be won, for just the footling expense of abandoning their senses of decency and empathy.
That’s what happens in Germany. Here are some things that don’t happen in Germany: those aforementioned teenagers do not attend high schools named after Adolf Eichmann, or Heinrich Himmler. Jewish families don’t have to walk to work past heroically-posed statues of Reinhard Heydrich. The swastika does not fly over Munich town hall, even on special occasions, and it isn’t tucked into the corner of the flag of any German province.
Unthinkably bizarre as those scenarios might be when imagined in modern Germany, until very recently that was more or less exactly the situation throughout the southern states of the USA (and still is, in certain quarters).
This, then, is what makes a nonsense of the claim made both by the neo-Confederate and neo-Nazi (I think we can dispense with the anaemic ‘alt-right’ euphemism now, don’t you?) marchers who plagued the streets of Charlottesville last week, and also their more ostensibly respectable little helpers in the political mainstream (including Nigel Farage, the unflushable turd himself, who stuck the latest of his many unwelcome oars in on this topic via Twitter); namely, that the current drive to remove statues of Confederate leaders from southern town squares, and to strike the old stars n’ bars from municipal flagpoles, is to ‘erase’ or to ‘rewrite’ history. It’s a lie, and a provable lie at that.
The Germans aren’t erasing or rewriting their own guilty history; they’re merely putting it where it belongs: in the chamber of horrors. To suggest that Germans are left in ignorance of the Nazi era simply because its icons and emblems have been removed from public display is demonstrably untrue. The difference is, I fear, that while German contrition for the Holocaust is authentic, southern contrition for slavery has often been grudging if not entirely feigned.
There’s a very instructive video doing the rounds on the internet by a gentleman called Jack Smith IV in which he not only explains why these Confederate statues turn out to be so flimsy when pulled down (crumpling like foil under the slightest pressure) but also why these statues are there in the first place. Most were put up neither during, nor shortly after the Civil War; rather they were cheaply mass-cast (hence the flimsiness) around the turn of the 20th century (when the segregationist Jim Crow laws were established) with another rash going up in the 1950s & 60s (when the Civil Rights movement began to challenge these laws). In other words, these statues were intended not so much to commemorate southern victories or mourn southern losses as to re-assert white authority. They were conceived and installed as totems of racial intimidation and should be regarded as such.
It’s good that the South is finally reaching for reconciliation with its own past, and it’s a welcome side benefit that the shaven-templed buffoons who sought to stand athwart this last week are now weeping and whining all over Facebook as their participation in the march is publicised and they find themselves varyingly fired, shamed and ostracised as a result. The Klan used to put bags over their heads for a reason, you numpties.
And the lessons of slavery and the Holocaust must be taught forever, not just in Germany and the South but everywhere. We must never forget how ignorance and suspicion of other peoples can lead even the most enlightened nations to do really, really stupid things.
You were wondering how I was going to make this about Brexit, weren’t you?